By Manojna Yeluri, Asia Regional Representative for the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC)

In recent years, the world has seen a disturbing rise in conflicts and wars motivated by political aggression, socio-economic volatility, and a rise in intolerance and extremism. This turmoil has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which served to highlight the fragility of the global economy as well as social safety nets around the world. There has been a worldwide surge in restrictions on freedom of expression and human rights violations at an unprecedented scale. Throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, people have borne witness to military coups and police brutality, soaring inequality, and the systematic breakdown of our most fundamental freedoms. We are currently witnessing the brave and ongoing protests against the strict moral policing of the Iranian government and in support of “Women, Life, Freedom,” following the heinous murder of Mahsa “Jina” Amini.
Once again, artists, especially women, find themselves at the frontlines of the protests in Iran – protests that have in turn sparked artist-led movements across the globe, from Tehran to Kabul, from Berlin to Los Angeles. Protesters have not only taken to the streets across the world, but have also made their way to social media and digital forums accessible anywhere and to anyone with internet access.

In response to these turbulent times, between November 2021 and March 2022, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) organized three closed-door virtual regional workshops for Africa, Asia, and Latin America in partnership with human rights and cultural organizations working in each region. These workshops brought together impactful stakeholders: artists, cultural practitioners, lawyers, academics, and art and human rights organization leaders. Participants engaged in intense sessions led by facilitators who are experts in the fields of human rights, free expression, artistic freedom, and cultural and arts management. The sessions involved detailed exchanges between the participants, with a view to discuss the unique challenges faced by cultural rights defenders in their respective regions, as well as to better understand the current state of artistic freedom and the actionable steps to be taken for a brighter future. 

Capturing the key points of discussion, findings, and recommendations, ARC, in partnership with our regional partners, is now releasing three publications that highlight the current state of artistic freedom in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

Each publication shares the key findings from the regional workshops, providing an overview of the challenges and opportunities facing artists and grassroots organizations in their respective countries. They offer unique anecdotal insights from artists themselves, across a range of disciplines and backgrounds, providing readers with a sense of the lived experience of artists and practitioners in vulnerable circumstances. 

Read together, these three publications trace certain patterns that hint at universal themes of concern across all regions:

  • There exists a substantial gap between the human rights world and artists, imposing a barrier for artists at risk when seeking aid through different human rights mechanisms and civil society organizations.
  • The rising tide of censorship, though varying in degrees and forms, is felt universally in all three regions and was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Artists and practitioners in all three regions expressed concern around digital security. With the rise in online surveillance mechanisms, laws regulating fake news and cyber security, and an increasing reliance of governments on restricting or shutting down internet access, artists in all three regions share growing uncertainty about their place in the digital world, their safety, and the future of their works in this realm. 

The three publications also present a number of shared recommendations from participants, suggesting that despite regional differences, there are fundamental freedoms and needs that are core to cultural rights defenders everywhere. 

These recommendations include:

  • Improve cross-border solidarity networks in an effort to connect more artists with resources as well as with more opportunities to showcase their work;
  • Provide and create better resources and mechanisms to address the psycho-social impact of persecution as experienced by many artists at risk. This can take the form of identifying trustworthy sources to provide mental health and well-being counseling, as well as ensuring that artists are given safe spaces to connect with each other and express themselves freely;
  • Bolster legal aid for artists and artist-activists and build stronger networks of pro-bono lawyers who are accessible to artists in vulnerable situations;
  • Funders and donors reevaluate their current practices and guidelines in an effort to disburse funds more freely and to better support the work of artists who engage deeply with issues of social justice. 

With these publications, ARC provides a glimpse into the on-ground challenges artists face in their respective countries, while also providing a birds-eye view of creative cross-border solidarity and the state of artistic freedom globally. In a world connected by social media and the internet, artists everywhere have the opportunity to support their counterparts in other countries. There has never been a more important time to pay attention to the work of artists and cultural rights defenders, and in turn understand how to navigate artist rights and freedom of expression in this technology-driven, interconnected world. 

The first report “Connecting the Dots” is available online and downloadable as a PDF.